Howard hawkish on subsidiarity, softens line on carbon tax

Environment Secretary Michael Howard disclosed for the first time during a hearing before the House of Commons Environment Committee on 28 October that he favours the repeal of the controversial EC Directive on drinking water. His comment will have alarmed environmentalists who remain concerned that the UK may use the EC debate on subsidiarity to seek the repeal of Community environmental laws. The hearing also revealed that the Government's stance on the proposed EC carbon tax may be softening.

Mr Howard's comments came during a one-session inquiry by the Committee into the Government's second progress report (see pp 20-21 ) on the 1990 White Paper on the environment.

Asked to comment how the subsidiarity principle may affect EC environment laws, Mr Howard advanced only one criterion which he felt would justify future legislative proposals by the Community. This would be where environmental damage was of a transfrontier character, though even here he suggested that where the issue affected a small number of Member States it might be better for them to resolve it bilaterally rather than for the Community to intervene.

The Environment Secretary's presentation was clearly at odds with the views of the Environment Commissioner, Karel van Miert, who told a seminar in London this summer that Community legislation would also be justified to harmonise environmental standards, and to establish a minimum level of environmental protection for all the Community's citizens (ENDS Report 210, pp 15-17 ).

According to Mr van Miert, the 1980 Directive on drinking water would be justified on the latter criterion alone. In contrast, Mr Howard told MPs that it is "quite difficult to justify European Community regulation on drinking water," and the UK was "quite capable of deciding which standards we wish to achieve." However, he acknowledged that it would be very difficult to secure agreement that the Directive should be repealed.

The Environment Secretary's comments were significant in that they revealed his gut feelings about the EC's role in environmental policy. They clearly went further than the official Government line that no decisions have been taken on what existing EC rules, if any, should be proposed for repeal in the coming months.

The official position reflects the conclusions of the EC Council in Birmingham in October, which requested the European Commission to prepare a report on its examination of existing EC legislation in the light of the new subsidiarity doctrine in time for the European Summit in December.

Mr Howard was also questioned about the proposed EC carbon/energy tax (ENDS Reports 208, pp 33-35 , and 211, pp 30-31 ). His initial response was consistent with previous official statements. The UK has no objection to the proposal in principle, but it requires careful examination, and in any event some Member States have very strong objections to the tax.

When asked whether he agreed that introduction of the tax should be conditional on similar action by the USA, Mr Howard said that there were "strong arguments" for this. However, he went on, it may not have to be done in that way. If the tax was fiscally neutral, this might reduce its impact on the corporate sector.

The EC proposal includes both a "conditionality" clause and a requirement that Member States make the tax fiscally neutral. But Mr Howard's comment was the first official suggestion that if fiscal neutrality was achieved then it might not be necessary to insist on similar action by other industrialised countries as a precondition for introducing the tax.

Elaborating further on his views, the Environment Secretary said that three policies are likely to be needed to meet the Government's target of stabilising the UK's carbon dioxide emissions at 1990 levels by 2000.

Energy saving was essential, but unlikely to suffice on its own. That implied that one or both of two further policies would be required. One was to curb the transport sector's rising contribution to CO2 emissions. The second was a carbon tax. A balance would have to be found between the three policy tools, and a carbon tax "may well have a part to play."

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